LAWRENCE, Kansas — Raucous chirping tipped me off to the tree full of birds in my front yard last weekend.
I opened the door and peeked out.
House sparrows seemed to be squabbling in our cherry trees. A lone starling sat among them, unperturbed. Somewhere nearby, a tufted titmouse sang an early morning tune.
Ornithologists hope next time you peek out your door, stroll around the block or visit a nearby park, you’ll take note of the birds you see and report them to one of the world’s biggest citizen science projects: eBird. It’s basically scientists crowdsourcing data with help from birdwatchers.
The massive database operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology contains nearly 1 billion bird sightings, reported by volunteers and scientists around the globe.
This weekend is a kind of annual PR blitz — The Great Backyard Bird Count — designed to hook you on noticing, identifying and reporting the flighty fauna in your area to help scientists and the animals they study.
Over the course of four days, people will report tens of millions of birds from thousands of species in pretty much every country on the planet.
Literal backyard counts are welcome, but so are tallies logged farther from home.
Finding the bird of your dreams
The number of people using eBird jumped nearly 40% in 2020, likely buoyed by a yearning for safe pastimes amid a pandemic.
All that data helps scientists track changes in bird populations and create detailed migration maps, species by species.
For newbies interested in helping, Cornell recommends trying its Merlin smartphone app before eBird. Merlin has photos, and helps you whittle down options to figure out exactly what landed on your windowsill.
The eBird app has no photos. But it lets you track what you’ve seen over time and tell scientists exactly where and when that osprey turned up, for example, or how many purple finches visited your feeder today between 8 a.m. and 8:15 a.m.
I tried both apps over the past few weeks and toggled back and forth: Merlin for help IDing and eBird to log my reports.
Here’s the real fun: eBird shows you what other people spot and where. Eager to see a belted kingfisher dive headlong into water after a fish? Birders have reported three in Johnson County in the past week. That juicy info is a start.
I used the same approach last week to find northern shovelers — ducks with adorable, oversized bills — at the Baker Wetlands outside Lawrence and watch them feeding in their goofy tight-knit circles.
But the range of bird species even within your own yard or local city park might surprise you.
“You can see such a variety of things if you’re just watching,” said Nick Clausen, who owns Wichita’s Backyard Nature Center with his wife, Cathy. “In our yard in the past we’ve actually documented over 150 or 160 species.”
Stuck at home during the pandemic, people now have time to watch. Bird seed and feeders became hot commodities. Sales are up.
“It has been constantly increasing throughout the year,” Clausen said. “We see a lot more new customers coming in.”
Dwindling bird populations
North America has an estimated 2.9 billion fewer birds today than in 1970. That’s one in four birds gone.
Half of grassland birds disappeared, making the losses particularly relevant to Kansas.
Colorful favorites among nature lovers dwindled: Baltimore oriole numbers dropped 40% and just 25% of eastern meadowlarks remain.
Many species lost critical habitat to sprawling cities, suburbs and cropland. Birds also slam into windows and face threats from pesticides and cats.
Still, University of Kansas ornithologist Mark Robbins sees cause for hope. He thinks back to the damage that DDT wrought before scientists revealed its toll and a public outcry spurred the chemical’s ban.
“The bald eagle went down the tubes. Brown pelican, peregrine, osprey,” said Robbins, the ornithology collection manager for the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.
“Almost all of them have come back. … Bald eagles are everywhere now. It’s amazing.”
Public will can again help birds, he said. Not just by promoting conservation efforts, but also by replacing patches of sterile lawn with pollinator gardens, buying shade-grown coffee, waiting till mid-July to cut hay and making windows safer.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology hopes that enticing people to notice birds and tally them opens their eyes to the population losses, too. They might wonder why they see so few evening grosbeaks at feeders that once teemed with them.
“We get that all the time,” said Becca Rodomsky-Bish, project leader for the Great Backyard Bird Count. “You know, ‘Fifty years ago I saw so many birds and now I'm only seeing these species.’”
Tapping into bird data
Any scientist can plumb the depths of Cornell’s eBird database for patterns. So the contributions of the many thousands of people who report their sightings have fed into hundreds of research papers.
Benedictus Freeman, a Liberian ornithologist wrapping up his doctoral work at the University of Kansas, uses eBird to advance conservation work in West Africa.
Major gaps remain in what scientists know about many species in the region. Freeman uses eBird sightings to piece together a picture. Even limited eBird reports can help him home in on the vegetation, temperatures and precipitation that a threatened species seeks out.
That, in turn, can inform conservation efforts by cluing scientists in on where else to look for that same bird.
But Freeman sees another advantage to citizen science and awakening a public interest in the creatures he studies.
Compared to many other animals hiding in dense African rainforests, birds are relatively easy to spot. They make a great tool for spurring appreciation of that ecosystem.
“The more people get interested in things they can see easily, I think it means a whole lot,” he said. “Birds are the easiest thing you can use for conservation education so people can easily relate to the environment.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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